The year 2018 opened on a bloody note in Benue State of central Nigeria. As the rural folks slept dreaming of a happy new year to come, little did they expect the blood and fire lurking around their dark corners.
In Guma and Logo Local Governments, invading herdsmen hacked down many defenseless rural dwellers that night. The official count was seventy-three (unofficial figures are much higher) who lost their lives in the attack. Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue broke down openly and wept as he visited the Benue State University Teaching hospital where the wounded were being treated. It was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Clashes between nomadic herdsmen and rural sedentary farmers are not new to Benue State or states that are in the Benue valley. These have been there – as old as Nigeria itself. Under colonial administration when agriculture was the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, the colonial masters took measures to ensure the rural populace involved in sedentary farming and the roving pastoralists- in the northern region – both had adequate space to earn their living. Forest reserves and grazing routes were carved out and maintained as state policy. Those who offended the law received punishment. This policy continued in the first republic.
The radical change came with the collapse of the first republic and the ascendancy of oil as the major cash cow of Nigeria’s economy. Agriculture and agricultural practices suffered a serious relegation in the eyes of government, whose officials were lured away from the backbreaking hard work that agriculture demanded to the easy milk and honey that flowed from the barrels of oil.
Consequences of this radical change in state policy soon emerged. Grazing routes gave way to highways built by governments with money derived from crude oil sales; schools, hospitals and other rapid infrastructures, sometimes whole modern cities like Abuja took much of the land that was reserved for grazing under the governments of the colonial masters and the first republic.
Government officials were too deeply engrossed in sharing the booty that came from oil to ponder over the long-term effects of their change in economic focus and direction. Their ill-guided policies were aggravated by the effects of climatic change. The Sahara Desert started its southward movement from the Sahel region aggressively in the 70’s with the draught that affected Nigeria’s northern neighbors, particularly Chad and Niger. There was mass migration of men and livestock from those countries into Nigeria.
At the beginning of the present republic, in May 1999, I was appointed the founding Editor of a monthly Magazine called the Crystal. In one of our early editions – March 2000 we did a story on desertification in Northern Nigeria. Working with me on the story was Tijanni Bande, a Professor and current Permanent Representative of Nigeria at the United Nations who was at the time a member of our Editorial Board. Government officials and experts who spoke to us revealed that the Sahara was advancing into Nigeria at a speed they said was “frightening”. They quantified the loss of arable land to desertification at an average of eight kilometers per annum.
One of the experts who spoke to us, Dr. Kabir Abdulkadir, the Executive National Coordinator, National Forests Conservation Council of Nigeria warned us about the effects of this aggressive movement by the desert. “The social effects of this aggression are the loss of dignity, social value and increasing spate of communal clashes between pastoralists and the farmers. The farmlands and grazing lands are limited. Occasional incursion of the cattle into farmlands will trigger unprecedented clashes resulting in the loss of lives.” That warning was given in the year 2000.
Today, the situation is worse. What Dr. Kabir saw as “Occasional incursion of cattle into farmlands” is no longer occasional. It is now frequent. And from the lean, light complexioned, friendly and even shy Fulani cattleman who carried a stick has emerged a rotund, dark, aggressive AK47 carrying herdsman. He invades your farm, destroys your crops, dares you and if you are foolish enough to stand up to him, he guns you down. The typical Fulani herdsman apologizes to you if his cattle destroys your crops and even offers to compensate you. The new herdsmen believe you should be grateful and or even pay them for the favor after his cattle have eaten up your crops.
The new aggressive herdsmen started their adventure in the Benue valley during the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo, 1999-2007. It resulted into a number of some bloody clashes. In 2007 when Gabriel Suswam was elected governor of Benue State, he felt concerned about the clashes enough to set up in 2008 a committee he named the “˜Tiv-Fulani crisis resolution committee” or something like that. It was to function under the joint chairmanship of the Sultan of Sokoto and the Tor Tiv. The Sultan delegated the Emir of Gombe to represent him. I was not a member of the committee but my friend and professional colleague Salle Bayare, a Fulani man who knows about my itinerant journalistic career all over northern Nigeria was secretary. He invited me to attend its meetings, with the hope that I could help out with my deep knowledge.
I attended two of the meetings. Just two at Transcorp and Agura Hotels in Abuja – and I said “enough is enough.” I thought this was a serious committee that would investigate the remote and immediate causes of the clashes between Tiv farmers and Fulani herdsmen that were becoming too frequent. I thought they will look at the environment, the economics, the social and even the religious causes and ramifications. As it turned out, I discovered from the discussions going on that the people at the meetings were very unserious. They kept on humoring themselves with stale, boring tales of Tiv/Fulani relations and medieval jokes. I have never been a comedian and did not see myself as one on an issue that involves the people’s lives.
I left and told Salle Bayare why I left. I did not stop there. In my column in the People’s Daily of July 19, 2009, I made it clear that the committee was a waste of time and government resources. I argued the problem is not between the Tiv and the Fulani but environmental, economic and a clash of civilizations; that the committee and government were wasting their time looking at it from the narrow perspective of Tiv and Fulani. The comedy continued even after I left and made my views public.
As the committee members met in the airconditioned rooms of expensive Abuja hotels, the herdsmen and farmers continued killing themselves in the bush. The reality did not dawn on them until the Tor Tiv’s country home was overrun by herdsmen who killed many people and took possession of the Royal country home and his farmlands. Later I learnt of some unspeakable developments at the committee involving the Tor Tiv and the Emir of Gombe over finances. Both monarchs are late now and there is no need going into such details. Before the death of Tor Tiv, Alfred Akawe Torkula, he issued a press statement calling the Sultan of Sokoto Said Abubakar unprintable names.
Things fell apart for the committee at a rapid pace. The comedy turned into tragedy. My man, Salle Bayare himself soon graduated from comrade to renegade. These days I read in the newspapers – with shock – his inflammatory statements about the Fulani martial superiority and his own justifications of the herdsmen attacks and massacres in the Benue valley. He is in good company of one Mr Gololo, a leader of the Miyetti Allah, the association of herdsmen in Benue who shocked the whole civilized world when he declared in a BBC Hausa interview that the herdsmen carried out the attacks that led to the massacre of women and children in Guma and Logo Local Government on New Year Day because their cattle were rustled by the villagers. Another unrepentant irredentist of the Fulani is one Professor Muhammad Labdo of the Maitama University in Kano who provoked a controversy with his comments in an interview with the Punch in February this year that Benue belongs to the Fulani by right of conquest.
Such comments are very unhelpful and have tended to promote the crisis from what it was originally – demand for arable land – to an ethnic and religious one.
What has made matters worse is that the current President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani man. The crisis started long before he was elected President. The mere fact that his ascendancy to the presidency has coincided with a new aggression on the part of the Fulani men makes him suspect in the eyes of the victims. Worse still is his reaction to the new aggression.
Last year, he as Commander in Chief of the armed forces formed a special army squad to tackle the menace of cattle rustling in Zamfara State. At that time, he donned on his army uniform and went to launch the squad in Zamfara, there had been massacres all over Benue and particularly in Agatu area of the state where a whole local government was sacked and occupied by herdsmen who murdered hundreds of people. The situation in Benue did not attract anything near the attention he gave Zamfara. In Benue, this was perceived as a discriminatory act; that the President cared more about his kinsmen and their cattle than the Benue people.
Other actions by the President and his government have not helped matters. When the massacre of villagers took place in January this year, many people thought the President would rush there and sympathise with the people. He did not. When governor Ortom led a delegation of Benue State leaders to see and cry over his shoulders, he sternly told them to go back home and accommodate their compatriots. Indirectly, the President heaped the blame of the crisis on the Benue people.
When the news first broke out about the massacre, the President issued a public statement that he had directed the Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris to move to Benue and ensure the return of normalcy. The IGP went there and spent a few hours and left. When the President went to Benue two months later and was told that the IGP he instructed to come and restore peace in Benue had only paid a flying visit to the state, he feigned ignorance that the orders he gave had been ignored.
On a recent visit to the United States, the President exonerated herdsmen of the massacres. He said herdsmen do not carry guns but sticks and cutlasses. Amazingly the same President who admonished Benue leaders to go home and accommodate their compatriots now accused the late Libyan leader Gaddafi of training the murderers who invaded Benue. Nigeria has no borders with Libya. Even if it had, Benue is a landlocked state with no international boundaries. So how did Libyans become compatriots of Benue citizens that the President wants accommodated?
If the President has no clear view of the ongoing killings in the Benue valley, the babel of voices coming from his top security aides is even more baffling. After news broke of the new year massacre, Ibrahim Idris the IGP waved it off as a mere communal clash. Later he blamed the crisis on the anti-open grazing law that was passed into law by the Benue State House of Assembly and assented to by Governor Ortom. It did not occur to the Inspector General that the killings had been going on before the passage of that bill and were still going on in states where anti open grazing laws were not in effect.
His Minister of Defence said Fulani herdsmen did it because the grazing routes created for them by colonial government were blocked and that the massacre was a logical consequence of the blockade. A spokesman of the State Security Services said the massacres were carried out by foreign mercenaries.
The President’s close security aides have remained a source of distrust between the President and his critics. The fact that all his service chiefs but one – the Chief of Naval Staff – are practicing Muslims has opened him to accusations that he has a secret plan to Islamize the north and the whole country. These suspicions have become more persistent with his decision to keep them in office even when their tenure of office has expired.
The suspicion that Buhari plans to Islamize Nigeria became most pronounced when suspected herdsmen in the early hours of 24th April stormed St. Ignatius Catholic Church, Ukpor-Mbalom Parish, Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State, killing two Catholic priests and 17 parishioners. This charge is further reinforced by the fact that most of the communities under the herdsmen’s attack in the Benue valley, Southern Kaduna, Plateau, Nassarawa, Benue, Taraba and Adamawa are predominantly inhabited by Christians. It is difficult to convince Christians who are at the receiving end of these attacks that the President means well especially when his security agencies fail to secure their lives.
The claims of turning Nigeria into an Islamic state reached such a pitch that that when President Buhari went to see President Bush at the White House in Washington recently, the US President said he had heard about the killings of Christians in Nigeria and that his country will not sit back and allow such a thing to happen.
Thus, a crisis that had nothing to do with religion and ethnicity has been allowed through the incompetence of people in government to fester and become a major threat to our national security. The most unfortunate development is that even as the country moves closer to the 2019 general elections, no solution appears to be found to this frightening national menace.